August 15th marks the beginning of squirrel season in Georgia, which runs through February 28th. Unlike the beginning of deer or turkey season, this date usually passes with little to no fanfare from the hunting population. Redneck boys don’t get together and talk trash to each other about who’s going to get the season’s trophy squirrel. I think this is a crying shame. Allow me to explain.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most people who call themselves hunters can’t actually hunt. Yeah, I said it. Bite me. I believe that the modern deer hunter’s skill set consists mainly of being really good at sitting on his ass. Because unless we’re talking about waterfowl, turkeys, or running coons or hogs with hounds, in my neck of the woods, hunting means shooting deer (and occasionally hogs or bears) out of a treestand.
This is a new development. Two generations ago, that would have put you spending a lot of hours in a tree twiddling your thumbs. Deer were scarce, and unless you were a highly skilled hunter with a lot of hours in the field, you were unlikely to see one, much less get a shot at it. Kids growing up in a hunting culture where large game animals were rare needed a practical way to learn hunting skills.
Enter the squirrel. Youngsters (like my dad growing up in the 1950s Georgia Piedmont) were given cheap, single-shot .22s or break-action single-barrel .410 shotguns and told to get out of the house and go play in the woods. Starting at seven, eight, or nine years old, they had slain hundreds of squirrels and rabbits by the time they reached their teens. They spent thousands of hours in the forest, memorizing game movements, learning the hotspots, and what times of day were best to go out. They understood how animals moved in the woods, how to stalk quietly through leaves and sneak up within range, and how to work the wind to hide their scent. The average 13-year-old back then probably had more hunting skill than most adults do now. By the time they were old enough to get their first deer rifle, they had what it took to use it.
Times have changed. Deer populations have exploded across North America in recent decades, to the point that deer are an overpopulated nuisance animal rather than a rare sight to behold. According to Georgia Outdoor News, the deer population in Georgia has risen from near extinction at the turn of the 20th century, to approximately 400,000 in 1970, to over 1.4 million today. That’s a lot of deer – a population increase of a million plus in just over 40 years.
New hunters, whether kids raised in the sport or adults exploring it for the first time, are initiated into it through deer hunting in a tree stand. And they learn to get really, really good at sitting.
Don’t get me wrong: Hunting out of a stand or a blind definitely still counts as hunting, regardless of the wailings of the naysayers. You have to stay quiet, keep movement slow and to a minimum, hunt the wind, camouflage yourself, take care of your scent, be mindful walking to and from your stand, watch game movement patterns to pick your spot, etc. It offers its own unique challenges as well, such as staying focused and alert for hours in the same spot, and having the self-discipline to stick it out long enough to see game in the bitter cold of the late season. And you still look through the sights at a living, breathing wild animal and pull the trigger, field dress it, butcher it, and put it on the table. No matter what non-hunters and anti-hunters say, it’s a challenge, and it is fair chase. Despite all the advantages you hold, there are still plenty of chances to fail, especially if you throw archery into the equation.
But hunting on foot is like stepping into another dimension. Most of the skills used in stand hunting still apply in stalking, but are only a fraction of the total skill set required. Hunting on the ground is an entirely new level of challenge. But it’s also an entirely new level of enjoyment. I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, hunting in a stand can get boring in a hurry. I have enough patience to fully focus on the same patch of woods for about an hour, less if it’s really cold. My mind starts to wander to everything I have to do back at the house – business stuff to take care of, chores for the family, etc. I usually bring a book to read, which although reading in the woods is great, it can be done elsewhere, like in front of a fire instead of in a freezing cold deerstand.
On foot is a different world. Do I have as much success as hunting out of a stand? No way. Not even close. It’s an exponentially greater challenge. But I think I can speak for most hunters when I say that actually killing an animal is only a part of why we do this. Of course I want to shoot a legendary wall-hanger buck as much as the next redneck. But if I can spend a day walking the ridgelines with a rifle slung over my back, totally lost in what I’m doing and focused on what’s in front of me and nothing else, that’s a great day – whether I even see a deer or not. But I digress.
As it has always been, the skills to track, stalk, and get within shooting range of big game are complex and slow to learn. It is not a skillset that can be acquired through books or videos. There are no hacks. Even with the explosion in their population and the increase in urban-wildland interfaces that regularly expose them to humans, deer are still extremely difficult to hunt on foot. The bucks that get fed by soccer moms in suburban backyards quickly switch back to their primal instincts when they range back in to the big woods. Chances are if you’ve been hunting in a stand all your life (or not hunting at all) and you try to jump straight into tracking deer, you’ll get skunked, and quickly discouraged.
Let us revisit the squirrel. They’re everywhere. Enter any patch of woods in the United States and you stand a good chance of finding them. And just as it’s always been, the skills needed to hunt them on foot transfer well to deer, hogs, turkeys, or virtually anything else. They’re a challenge, and probably more of one than you think. If your only experience with squirrels has been with the semi-tame ones living in your backyard or local park, you’re in for a surprise. Although their brains may be tiny, wild squirrels live at a level of paranoia and fear unfathomable to us at the top of the food chain. They are wary of everything, because they have to be. For a squirrel, death comes from all sides: Hawks, owls, foxes, weasels, bobcats, big snakes, and coyotes all eat them in scores. Every errant footstep or quick movement gets their attention, and they’ll either run for the hills or stay firmly hidden on the opposite side of a tree if spooked. One of the most frustrating things as a squirrel hunter is to hear a handful of the critters squirreling around through the brush a few hundred yards out and continuously moving away from you, staying safely out of range. Getting outsmarted by a rodent with a brain the size of an almond is a humbling experience.
Don’t let anyone tell you squirrel hunting is less of a rush than hunting big game. You may only get one quick shot at the wild-eyed critter before it spots you and is gone. Stepping on a branch will ruin your chances just as much as with the bigger animals. Marksmanship is also a challenge. The best shot on a squirrel is a headshot, and the second best is to the vital area. Those are both golf-ball size targets. Give yourself three seconds to make a confident offhand shot on a golf ball from fifty yards with an iron-sighted .22 and tell me that’s not a challenge. With that in perspective, hitting the melon-sized vital area of a deer or hog at range becomes laughably easy.
But on the other hand, while squirrels are easily scared, they are far more forgiving. This is where the learning comes in. You can get second chances. Spooking a deer often means it tearing off into the next county, but a scared squirrel often only runs a few hundred yards, or takes shelter in a high treetop. Sit tight and quiet and give it a few minutes, and you may get another crack at it. In this way, the learning curve is shorter. You can quickly figure out what works and what doesn’t over the course of a single day of hunting, rather than a fruitless season of chasing deer. And a whole season of hunting squirrels can give you an education in practical hunting skills that can’t be bought.
Small game is also an excellent, scaled-down introduction to field-dressing, skinning, and butchering. To a new hunter, dealing with a freshly killed deer can be a daunting task. But if you botch a squirrel… well, you’ve botched a squirrel. Throw the pieces in the freezer and get another one.
Speaking of the freezer, squirrels can be durn tasty critters too. They can be delicious when prepared in soups, stews, dumplings, and casseroles, or a myriad of other ways. No lie, they really do taste like dark meat chicken.
So to wrap it all up, what does learning to hunt small game have to do with building survival skills? Lots, actually. In a wilderness survival scenario, small game will likely be one of your most plentiful protein sources. Same with a long-term grid-down scenario where food supplies have run out and you are forced to hunt for food. Plenty of people have hunting as an integral part of their survival plan, as they should. But honestly, most don’t have the skills to stake their lives on it. So for anyone who thinks they may need to learn how to hunt to survive, start now. Start now, when the stakes are low and you can afford to screw up time after time as you build your skills. Start now, when you can choose to learn the basics under ideal conditions with ideal gear, when you’re not cold, wet, and starving. And most importantly, have fun with it, and be willing to laugh at your mistakes, which you will definitely make. Learn to love the process, and the results will follow.